Over the past several months, filmmaker and Professor of Visual Arts Su Friedrich and a team of others created a new website dedicated to the American filmmaker William Greaves, whose immense body of work tells a rich and complex story about the major figures engaged in the fight for social justice and equal opportunity in America.
From 1953-2005, William Greaves was the producer, writer, director, cinematographer and/or editor of seventy-nine films. Spanning documentary, narrative, and hybrid forms, the films document, reflect on, and celebrate the African American experience. From the fierce battles for civil rights (Nationtime and Black Power in America: Myth or Reality?) to the remarkable achievements of inspiring leaders (Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice and Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey) and onward to the two uncategorizable, astonishing Symbiopsychotaxiplasm films, his filmography constitutes a unique and powerful portrait of the United States and its checkered history. Despite Greaves’s historical and contemporary significance, under-representation has meant that few of his films are restored and available.
To fully document Greaves’s work and share it with a new generation, Friedrich collaborated with his widow and lifelong partner, Louise Greaves, to produce a comprehensive website. The team included Sorat Tungkasiri from Princeton University’s McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, researcher and Princeton alum Michael Jorgensen ’07, and Scott MacDonald, co-editor of the forthcoming book, William Greaves: Filmmaking as Mission, with additional contributions from several others. Major funding for the project was provided by Marcia and Stanley Nelson at Firelight Media and the Lewis Center for the Arts, along with financial support from several individuals.
Through the website, viewers can delve into Greaves and his significant body of work. One can stream numerous films on Vimeo, read and download film reviews, scholarly articles, and texts by Greaves, and purchase licenses to share Greaves’s work in educational settings. The website also shares information on the William Greaves Fund for mid-career nonfiction filmmakers of color, a new opportunity created by Firelight Media in support of stories and storytellers that fill popular culture with nuance, beauty, complexity, and that reflect a broad range of often underrepresented views.
“I’ve admired his films since I saw the first one in the early 1990’s,” Friedrich notes. “It was such an honor and a thrill to bring him to Princeton in 2005 to show several of his films, including his just-released film, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 ½, and I feel so lucky to have been able to work with Louise to create this website and bring his work to the public all over again. I was also extremely fortunate to have Sorat Tungkasiri handling most of the tech work as I built the site. We had worked closely together last year when he did the same work on “Edited By” (a website I made about women film editors), so it was a huge relief when he offered to also help out with this one.”
In February 2020, the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Visual Arts presented William Greaves: Psychodrama, Interruption, and Circulation, a series of events centered on Greaves’s work. Events included a day-long symposium, a screening of Greaves’s recently restored film Nationtime, and the exhibition “William Greaves – Sondra Perry – Martine Syms” featuring works by Greaves and two internationally renowned artists working in the vein of his legacy. The symposium, organized by artists Fia Backström and Martine Syms, sought to share Greaves’ work with a contemporary audience and gave access to some of his films that had rarely been screened.
William Greaves (1926-2014) was a film director and producer with an extraordinarily diverse body of work produced over a career spanning 50 years. His work includes Emmy-nominated breakthrough films as well as sponsored documentaries. Greaves is best known for his early use of cinéma vérité, psychodrama, and split screen techniques. Initially unable to break into a U.S. film industry that was closed to African Americans, Greaves left America in 1952 and spent almost a decade in Canada. He worked for many years on the staff of the National Film Board, where he eventually became chief editor of the internationally recognized award-winning Unit B and, in 1958, produced, directed and edited, Emergency Ward. But by 1963, the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to open doors to African Americans in the American media. Greaves had always planned to return to the United States. That year, as a filmmaker with years of training and experience, he returned to the U.S. to play a role in telling the story of African Americans’ centuries-long struggle for freedom and equality at this critical period in American history. Out of this came the films The First World Festival of Negro Arts (1966), Still a Brother: Inside the Negro Middle Class (1968), and From These Roots (1973). From These Roots, the first documentary about the Harlem Renaissance, is considered an African American Studies classic, and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm:Take One (1971) is an exemplar of Greaves’ innovative techniques and is now listed in the Registry of American film at the Library of Congress. Until its recent discovery in a Pittsburgh warehouse, Greaves’s original cut of Nationtime (1972) was assumed to have been lost. Found and restored in 2020 by IndieCollect, the original full-length film documents the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana.
Su Friedrich has directed twenty-three films and videos since 1978, which have been featured in eighteen retrospectives at major museums and film festivals, including one at the Museum of Modern Art in 2007. The films have been widely screened at film festivals, universities and art centers, have been extensively written about, and have won numerous awards, including Grand Prix for Sink or Swim at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Friedrich is the recipient of several awards, including an Alpert Award in the Arts (1996), an NEA Fellowship (1994), a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship (1990), a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (1989), and multiple grants. Her work is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Royal Film Archive of Belgium, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the National Library of Australia, as well as many university libraries. Her DVD collection is distributed by Outcast Films. She teaches video production at Princeton University.
To learn more about William Greaves and his body of work, visit the new website at www.williamgreaves.com. To learn more about the Lewis Center for the Arts, and the more than 100 public performances, exhibitions, readings, screenings, concerts and lectures presented each year, most of them free, visit arts.princeton.edu.